Most helpful positive review
84 of 91 people found the following review helpful
Understanding the 50's and More
on March 17, 2000
Toulmin does an above average job of informing the postmodern thinker regarding the historical rootage of many of his or her cherished beliefs. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and even sent off quotes to a friend who is doing a cross-disciplinary dissertation. Although it deals with "scientific" issues, Toulmin actually does a great job showing us how we came to think in some of the very general ways that way we do.
As an adjunct professor trained in the Humanities, I can only wish I had read this 10 years ago when it came out! For anybody who ever desired to understand why and how 'postmodernism' is a reaction to the 1950's, this book is must reading. His basic thesis is simple and elegant; though a philosopher like Descartes may postulate timeless truth, the fact of the matter is that those 'timeless' truths are rooted in a specific historical situation and its limited sociology of knowledge. (In this case, the Thirty Years War which ravaged Europe from 1618-1648.) Western philosophy and science has been traditionally associated with the Quest for Certainty that initiated with Descartes. However, Toulmin shows how that was not necessarily the only viable means to achieve certifiable knowledge/science. Descartes was a child of the early 17th Century and the radical uncertainty that ravaged all of Europe during the Thirty Years War. The pricetag of achieving some manner of certainty to overcome the social chaos of that time was that the European academic community turned its back on the more eclectic, inductive, and humane tradition of the Renaissance thinkers like Montagne and Erasmus. This, as Toulmin shows, was not only tragic, but very limiting to all of Western Philosophy/Science/Culture for about 300 years.
In a moment of rare insight, Toulmin then shows how this developed and eventually had parallels in our own century with the dogmatism that grew out of the aftermath of the First World War in the 1930s and the advent of Logical Positivism, and then again, in the stultifying conservatism of the 1950s which reacted in similar fashion to the chaos resulting from the Second World War. In a word, Toulmin shows us just how far the the academic/social community will sacrifice truth and knowledge for certainty when social climates dictate it. Understanding this dynamic allows us to realize that times of crisis need not be resolved by a Quest for Certainty which operates on principles of timeless truths or single domain methods. As Toulmin constantly advises us, there are no timeless methods which do not have an oppressive underbelly.
Having been trained in rhetoric, psychology, literature, and religion, I found his book most enlightening. It should be in the libraries of all scientists, therapists, professors, pastors, theologians, and anybody else who is interested in how to proceed in this age of pluralism and its cornocopia of postmodern 'methods'.